Karen Piemme of the Red Ladder Theatre Company has spent years taking theater into the community in order to give voice to new stories and to people who don’t often see their stories reflected in the dominant culture. She states:
“There are plenty of stories that we see that are the Main Street stories. I see theater as a way to take people who are in the shadows and bring their stories to their life, so that we raise awareness in our community about what is happening in our own community and the rest of the world. Most people aren’t sharing that information.”
What follows is her story of working in a government facility for girls in Santiago, Chile. The girls there ranged in age from toddlers to about eighteen.
This Chilean government facility was the most depressing environment you could possibly imagine. Try to think of an oppressive regime creating a space – that’s really what it was. The people who worked there were in military uniform. I mean it was ridiculous…
They gave us a place to meet the girls for our workshop. There was one bare light bulb in the middle of the ceiling and broken curtains and cabinets with shattered glass. I mean it was just these dank dark, sort of horrific conditions in there.
We set up a time frame for our workshops – we asked for a time that was convenient for the girls and the facilities. They didn’t think of the girls’s needs but those of the administration. They gave us a span of time that was when their mealtime was. But all these girls would rather be in a situation where for a couple of hours they were using their creativity then eating. They would just have someone bring them a piece of toast until their next mealtime rather than leaving to go eat. Their priority was to stay and create.
The space they had us in was so awful that one day we decided to go outside and work in the courtyard. All the girls came with us. We left all our personal belongings behind. When we came back in I discovered my money had been stolen. I didn’t say anything to the staff because I didn’t want the girls to get in trouble. I was pretty sure it wasn’t the girls. Only the staff members had access to the building.
A staff member overheard us talking about the theft though and went into the rooms and tossed them to search for money. They strip searched the girls and put them in the most compromising positions possible.
The girls were in tears. I felt terrible. We all felt terrible.
One of the older girls said to us,
“This happens all the time. You were just an excuse for this to happen…They are not crying because of what happened to them…They are crying because you might not be coming back.”
That was their biggest concern: not their humiliation, but that we would be coming back. For them it was so important to know that someone was coming back to hear their stories and let them create art that was about their lives and experiences that they would endure anything to be sure that was something that was going to happen… They shut themselves off from what was a typical violation for them. They wanted to make sure they’d have the opportunity to create.